A case involving the now discontinued Mercer County School System’s Bible in the Schools program will not be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear an appeal of a decision made last year in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.

That decision overturned a dismissal of a lawsuit filed by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation in 2017 seeking to end the Bible in the Schools (BITS) program in Mercer County schools.

The lawsuit included Elizabeth Deal, a parent of a child she removed from the school system to avoid possible “ostracism” by other students when her child would not take the optional Bible course, which had been offered in Mercer County schools for 75 years. Deal sought damages related to the program.

However, in August 2017, Senior U.S. Southern District Judge David A. Faber dismissed the suit, concluding that no damages could be awarded because any “damage” or hardship to children was speculative, mainly because the BITS program no longer existed so children could not be exposed to it.

The school system ended the privately funded program, which was administered by the school board, before the 2017-18 school year and dismissed all teachers involved.

Deal filed an appeal before the 4th Circuit. The appellate brief filed by Attorney Marc Schneider and FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott argued that Deal and her daughter could continue to pursue claims against the school district even though her daughter was attending a neighboring school system.

The 4th Circuit agreed, overturning the dismissal, and the Mercer County Schools System, represented by the First Liberty Institute in Plano, Texas, appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.

The FFRF on Monday called the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the appeal, which effectively allows the 4th Circuit Court decision to stand, a “resounding victory for the state/church watchdog and a parent of a public school student.”

“This decision will stand as precedent ensuring that people who are harmed by religious indoctrination in their community can pursue legal action to end those illegal practices,” Elliott said.

“The country’s topmost judicial authority has rightly let this decision stand,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “There can’t be a bigger boost to our secular Constitution.”

Jeremy Dys, special counsel for litigation and communications for First Liberty Institute, also issued a statement about the Supreme Court’s’ decision.

“While the Court’s action did not address, in any way, the merits of the case, we are disappointed by its decision to not review the case,” Dys said. “The curriculum at the center of this case as it once existed is never coming back. The Mercer County School District remains committed to following the law as it provides diverse educational opportunities to its students.”

The original lawsuit was filed in January 2017 in U.S. District Court in Bluefield by FFRF against the Mercer County Board of Education, the school system and Superintendent Dr. Deborah Akers.

The suit alleged the Bible in the Schools program was unconstitutional because it “endorses one religion, improperly entangles public schools in religious affairs, and violates the personal consciences of nonreligious and non-Christian parents and students.”

Two plaintiffs in the suit, Jane Doe and Deal, were parents of children who either attended Mercer County schools or would attend. They claimed the children risked “ostracism” from other students if they did not participate in the Bible classes, which were optional.

The lawsuit also contended that the Bible in the Schools program, which was taught in 15 elementary schools and three middle schools, offered classes that are basically “Sunday school” classes, which they say is illegal.

In May 2017, the school system suspended the Bible in the Schools program for the 2017-2018 school year, terminating all teaching positions, and the lawsuit was dismissed in August 2017.

An optional class now offered to high school and middle schools is called “The Bible and Its Influence,” which teaches the Bible’s literary and historical significance. It was legally vetted and Elliott said the FFRF has no issue with it.

Email: cboothe@bdtonline.com.

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